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“Significant, Insignificant”:
Realist and Postmodernist Art in Hawkes’s Whistlejacket

I

Horses, photography, murder, art, the decadent upper classes. Before John Hawkes combined these elements in Whistlejacket, they had figured, in varying combinations, in a number of twentieth-century fictions notable for the resourcefulness with which their authors cast doubt on personal, societal, and epistemic constructions of reality. The horse, for example, which Hawkes also exploits in The Cannibal, The Lime Twig, and Sweet William, has served writers as the symbol of a potency with which overcivilized humanity has lost touch. One thinks here of Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, of course, but also of St. Mawr, in which an effete artist struggles with a splendid but deadly horse that becomes the emblem of a vitality leached away from modern civilization. The blinded horses in Shaffer’s Equus, by the same token, represent a strangely numinous reproach to human alienation and despair.

A like provenance can be sketched for Hawkes’s treatment of photography, murder, and art as vehicles of epistemological revelation. In Julio Cortázar’s story “Blow-Up,” made into a memorable film by Antonioni, a photographer stumbles onto what he takes for a murder and [End Page 99] learns lessons about the fictiveness of reality. Similar lessons figure in The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway’s film about another mysterious murder, a naive artist, a pair of sinister women, a splendid manor house, and, incredibly, the historical currents that brought the Enlightenment and the Glorious Revolution to England. Indeed, Hawkes remarks in the interview with Robert Enright that Whistlejacket was “explicitly prompted” by this film (38). 1 Of these antecedents, only Hawkes himself, notably in The Lime Twig, and only Cortázar, Antonioni, and Greenaway, with their highly visual artist-protagonists and their encounters with the limits of perception, prepare us for the subtle scrutiny, in Whistlejacket, of signification and its alleged inability to close with the real. Hawkes goes farther with the art theme than Cortázar, Greenaway, or, for that matter, Lawrence, and he is less inclined than they to concede the limitations of art. In the face of many a theoretical assertion otherwise, Hawkes affirms in all great art, whatever its period or its style, a system of signification that paradoxically extends beyond itself to cancel différance and afford glimpses of all those things that, according to poststructualist theory, cannot be represented, from Derrida’s “transcendental signified” to the Lacanian Real, the subject without a voice in the Symbolic Order.

This extravagant claim for art is the burden of certain central pages in the novel: in one passage, Michael, narrator for most of the story, describes in careful detail a painting by the Rococo artist François Boucher; in another, more extended sequence, the late eighteenth-century artist George Stubbs, best known for his paintings of horses, executes a couple of commissions for an aristocratic patron, Lady Sophia Nelthorpe. I propose to examine these scenes and the aesthetic philosophy they reveal, compare them to Michael’s own art (he is a fashion photographer), and consider whether the art of Whistlejacket itself departs from the aesthetic praxes it surveys. In addition to my thesis regarding Hawkes’s affirmation of art’s ability to represent reality, I shall argue a corollary to Hawkes’s postmodern ontology: if realities are multiple, not mutually exclusive, then the artistic practices reflecting these realities are similarly multiple, not hierarchized. In other words, rather than displacing modernism or realism, literary postmodernism as practiced by the John Hawkes of Whistlejacket affords an integrating vision of art past and present. In the latter part of this essay I shall situate these [End Page 100] aesthetic themes within the larger context of postmodern indeterminacy.

According to Rita Ferrari’s reading of Whistlejacket, “Hawkes’s championing of the artistic imagination does not rest in valorization, but rather works to examine the processes of art and the ends it serves” (105). Indeed, in Whistlejacket one encounters an iconoclastic dissertation on the epistemology of art. The reader is led sooner or later to ask questions about the types of art surveyed here-that of Boucher or Stubbs in the past...